Martin Edmond


we set out now in the boat of millions of years

In March, 2004, the 15 nations of the European Space Agency launch, from Kourou in French Guiana, a probe called Rosetta. Rosetta carries a television-sized robot which it is to land on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, one of the very few orbiting within the solar system. Churyumov-Gerasimenko ellipses the sun every 6.6 years without going beyond Jupiter. An Ariane 5 rockets Rosetta in the direction of Mars, which it passes in February 2007. Mars’ gravity accelerates Rosetta on its loop back towards Earth as, in November 2007, it makes its second fly-by; later, in September 2008, it will pass close to asteroid 2876 Šteins. In November 2009, on its third solar orbit, Rosetta makes another pass of the Earth, so that our gravity can slingshot it almost as far as Jupiter. On the way to Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in July 2010, it flies by asteroid 21 Lutetia.

your love in my flesh like a reed in the arms of the wind

Rosetta is in deep-space hibernation from May 2010 until January 2014, when it begins approaching the comet, tracking it from behind at a speed of 90 km/h. It continues to close until it glides past about 35 km out at a speed of 7 km/h. From Control Centre in Germany, the probe is slowed to let the comet overtake; then it repasses. This manoeuvre is repeated maybe ten times, with the probe coming closer on each pass until it is a kilometre above the surface, at which point it goes into orbit and then, in November 2014, lets go the 100 kilogram, three legged lander called Philae, after an island in the Nile where a temple to Isis once stood. In the comet’s gravity, 100,000 times weaker than Earth’s, Philae weighs just one gram. It drops straight down to the surface, anchors itself with screws, harpoons and wires, and begins three weeks of surface experiments. Ten cameras take panoramas and close ups. Microphones listen for echoes of pips emitted by speakers fitted to each leg. A drill digs 25 cm under the surface for samples which are analysed and photographed on board. Radio waves beam from the lander, through the comet and on to Rosetta, scanning Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s interior. Philae falls silent when its battery dies. But, a year later, as the comet, escorted by Rosetta, nears the sun, light falling on solar panels revives the probe. Unlike previous vessels sent to the outer solar system—NASA’s Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo and Cassini missions—Rosetta is not nuclear powered. Instead, it is fitted with 70 square metres of solar panels covered in tiny glass pyramids to catch as much of the sun as possible.

our hearts as light as the feather of truth on the scales

Comets are the oldest things in the solar system. They are rubble left over from the accretion of the other bodies which orbit our sun, fragments of what the planets are made from. On their surfaces are water-ice, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane, covered in a black tar produced by intergalactic dust and carbon raining down for billions of years. Halley’s Comet turned out to be the blackest object ever seen in space, blacker than coal dust. As a comet approaches the sun, ice inside of it starts to vaporise, gas and dust jet out through holes and envelop it in a cloud, or coma, of water vapour, hydrogen, and cyanide; then the action of the solar wind on the coma makes the gas and dust stream out for millions of kilometres in the blazing white tail which so troubled the ancients.

our names stars on the arching belly of night

The Rosetta Stone is a basalt slab 114 x 72 x 28 cm found in the summer of 1799 in the small Egyptian village of Raschid in the western delta of the Nile. It has been re-used in a structure being demolished by a group of Napoleon’s soldiers so that they can build a barracks. The actual discoverer of the piece is a man by the name of Bouchard or Boussard. The Stone, cut in 196 BC, presents a single text in three different scripts; it is a Decree of the priests of Memphis in honour of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, written originally in Greek and then translated into hieroglyphs and demotic script. The final, strangely prescient words are: this decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred and native and Greek characters and set up in each of the first, second and third temples beside the image of the ever living king. Publication of the trilingual inscriptions in Bonaparte’s scholars’ Description de l’Egypt (1809) enables, by 1822, Frenchman Jean Francois Champollion to decipher the Stone. Further, with his knowledge of Coptic, the language of Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians, Champollion construes the phonetic value of some hieroglyphs, showing that they do not simply have symbolic meaning, but represent a spoken language as well. It is an obelisk found on Philae, with a bilingual inscription including the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy in hieroglyphs, that gives Champollion the last clues towards decipherment.

crossing the water we speak the hieroglyph of darkness

The European Space Agency’s decision to call their probe Rosetta declares an intent to decipher the hieroglyph comet but are we equal to the task? Our civilisation believes understanding is reached when we can a/ describe an object, b/ identify its origin and c/ find a use for it. We cannot escape the preconceptions of this method: current orthodoxy believes the Universe originated in a Big Bang, like a nuclear bomb: we are living in the debris of an explosion. There are other models. Those who think the earth’s biosphere is a living organism see comets not as black snowballs but cosmic sperm looking for planets to fertilise with hydrocarbons. There are millions of them in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Most scientists do not admit that they practice Cosmogony, which makes it hard for them to understand the immensely long tradition they are heir to. Rather, they are obsessed with the notion that there is one explanation which covers all cases—a Theory of Everything. Since Stephen Hawking’s audience with the Pope last century, when it was decided that what is at issue is not who created the Universe but how he went about doing it, even the most extravagant notions of the astrophysicists have been reckoned compatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

on the far horizon of our eyes the ancient sun rises

What might Rosetta find that would astonish us? Every time a probe goes out and sends back information for analysis, the scientists announce their incredulity. This is almost always because the particulars do not precisely answer their predictions. Then they beaver away at their equations again to make room for errant data. There is nothing surprising about this process: it is the empirical method, confirming its own veracity via revision of theory in accord with observation. At the same time, all other explanations are explicitly or implicitly cancelled. There is no other way of understanding. Curiously, those who hunt down heretics call themselves sceptics.

together we place our hands on the greeting stone

What about the Stone? Fascinating as the Decree is in its detail of Ptolemy V’s reign—his endowment of temples with corn and money and their adornment with gold and jewels, his remission of taxes on the people, the freeing of prisoners, the damming of the Nile during victorious wars, care for old soldiers, gifts to the sacred animals of Egypt, honouring of the dead—we believe it to be essentially misconceived: Ptolemy, the ever-living, beloved of Ptah, the God Epiphanes Eucharis, the son of the Gods Soteres, and the Gods Adelphoi, and the Gods Euergetai, and the Gods Philopatores was not divine, nor were his ancestors, and nor were the archaic deities he represented in himself. In the same way, all of the sacred writing of the Egyptians, which Rosetta taught us to read, is wrong about the big things, because they had no Science. And what does Science say of the big things? God, process, technology, end. As it gathers sunlight on its glass pyramids and, over the next few years, swings away, back, away, back and away again towards the black comet, what could Rosetta possibly find there but the elemental dust?

our souls will be birds on the distant road of the sky

Martin Edmond lives in Sydney. His next book, Luca Antara : Passages in
Search of Australia
, will be published by East Street Publications in
November this year.

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Blogger Jean Vengua said...


this is beautiful, very poignant...


12:30 PM  
Blogger Martin Edmond said...

Thank you, Jean. Feel I should acknowledge source(s) of lines but can no longer remember, except the lovely line 2, from a little book that was with a deck of the Egyptian tarot I gave a friend one time - a 3000 year old love poem.

2:11 PM  

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